Tuesday, December 3, 2013

World Quality Month 2013 – Trust in the data

The November Influential Voice topic celebrates World Quality Month.  This year and last I have had the good fortune to speak to organizations outside the Navy and Hampton Roads on my quality related topics.  This past week I was honored to speak at the ASQ Princeton, NJ section meeting, previewing my upcoming talk at ASQ’s Lean & Six Sigma Conference.  Last year, I had the pleasure of speaking in Dubai for the Dubai Quality Group’s annual Improvement and Innovation Symposium.  Part of the value of World Quality Month is to be able to share your thoughts and quality moments outside your normal sphere of influence.

This month the Influential Voice bloggers were asked to share a personal quality moment.  The one that immediately jumped to mind involved understanding process, analyzing data, and determining root cause, all for the sake of understanding impact of change.  Back in 1998, I was a Quality Systems Manager in the paperboard industry working in a long-shuttered plant in Chambersburg, PA.  The plant produced packaging for a major candy company who is serious about statistics and measures.  They were very interested in understanding opening force of cartons so understanding the characteristics of raw materials were important.  They were very specific about the stiffness of the paperboard we purchased and wanted to tighten the allowable range of stiffness for specific paperboard thicknesses.  I was asked to study the impact of narrowing the allowable range. 

Paperboard is produced on rolls 5- 6 feet in diameter. I designed and executed a study of stiffness on specific types of paperboard that we used to produce the customer’s packaging.  The study required I take samples in 3 spots across the roll; at the beginning, middle and end of the roll, for a total of 9 samples per roll.  I did this for 5 specific thicknesses.  The results were something I did not expect.  The stiffness measurements across the roll varied little but the stiffness readings from beginning to the end of the roll varied by 10%.  With thicker substrates this would cause us to reject rolls.

As someone with little knowledge of paperboard manufacturer and fairly new to the paperboard industry in general (3 years experience) I consulted an expert to determine what would cause this.  The answer I got was logical:  The mills stretch the web when first placing the paperboard on the roll in order for it to adhere to the roll and then lessen the tension as the paperboard continues to roll on the spool.  Armed with my data and explanation I presented it to the customer.  They were unhappy.  They KNEW that stiffness could not change that drastically, questioned my competence, and were generally nasty.  I gave them the contact information for my expert and let the customer handle it.  Six months later I got a call from the customer, thanking me for providing the data to them. Yes, they agreed with the findings that I gave them and would not be tightening the thickness interval as planned.

This incident has stuck with me ever since as I talked about statistical concepts, the power of data, and how process knowledge tied with data can impact decision making. Yes, I was “hassled” at times by my boss and my people for the large amount of time we were spending doing this study but what we saved in the headaches of potentially rejecting good product cannot be captured.   So, my final thought to you for World Quality Month is that it is important to have process knowledge.  It takes time to gather that knowledge.  Defendable process knowledge, backed by data and logic, are the most powerful tool quality practitioners possess. Happy World Quality Month!
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